My First Time Reading: Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi is a name I have heard many times. Her past work has been acclaimed by critics and readers alike, but I never got around to reading any of her books. Until now. I have no idea what I was waiting on.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, is, to put it bluntly, a masterpiece. The reviews I have read about this book of stories were not wrong in the slightest. Before I continue gushing about Ms. Oyeyemi’s flawless writing, let me give you a little insight into what I experienced when reading this amazing writer’s work.

As I said, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, is a book of stories, nine to be exact. Each is a story in which a key, door or lock (or all three) is the theme. When I started the first story, Book of Roses, I began reading on my commute into work. I love reading on the train (or anywhere for that matter) and always have a book with me. As I read, I immediately realized this book was not made for the train. It was made for quiet days on your couch or easy chair, with no distractions or interruptions. This book needed, no demanded, that it be savored like a fine wine or a delicious French meal. So I closed the book and vowed to read it at home where I wouldn’t be disturbed.

That was the best decision I could have made because I did savor this book. I savored the rich language, sumptuous descriptions and punches to the gut Ms. Oyeyemi’s stories contained. The shifts in each story were subtle, almost invisible, but they changed each story’s tone dramatically and created almost a brand new story. A perfect example is in the story “‘sorry’ doesn’t sweeten her tea,” which seemed like it would be about a man who housesits for a friend living in a creepy place called the “House of Locks,” but turned into an eyes-wide-open take on what happens when celebrities do bad things and offer lame apologies when caught. (Celebrities take note: fans hate your lame apologies). The shifts in that particular story changed its tone more than once, making it feel like I read four stories instead of one.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is called “is your blood as red as this?” It is a tale in two parts, one from the girl Radha’s point of view and the other from Gepetta, a haunted marionette. I am not the one for stories about puppets because basically, I am a chicken when it comes to dolls in any form. They creep me out and I can’t be around them without thinking of the 1970s film “Trilogy of Terror.” But Ms. Oyeyemi tricked me into loving this story with her lovely words and pulled me with absolutely no effort. As I read, I had to keep stopping so I could flag all of the passages that spoke to me. Like this one on Page 101:

You had a string of fairy lights wrapped around your neck.  I sort of understood how that would be comforting, the lights around your neck.  Sometimes I dream I’m falling, and it’s not so much frightening as it is tedious, just falling and falling until I’m sick of it, but then a noose stops me short and I think, well, at least I’m not falling anymore.  Clearly I hadn’t arrived in your life a moment too soon.  You looked at me, and this is how I saw you, when I first saw you:  I saw your eyes like flint arrows, and your chin set against the world, and I saw the curve of your lips, which is so beautiful that it’s almost illusory—your eyes freeze a person, but then the flickering flame of your mouth beckons.

And if that wasn’t enough, Ms. Oyeyemi puts these words on her readers, which literally made me say “Wow” after reading them:

I discovered that I could talk to you in natural, complete sentences.  It was simple:  If I talked to you, perhaps you would kiss me.  And I had to have a kiss from you:  To have seen your lips and not ever kissed them would have been the ruin of me . . .

That is only a taste of what is in store for you should you have the chance to read this beautifully written work by a very talented young author.  I have already purchased this book for my library so I can read it as many times as I want, as well as the rest of Ms. Oyeyemi’s books.  I implore all of you to visit your local library or bookstore and treat yourself to this amazing writer’s work.  Then find a quiet spot, grab a glass of wine or a nice cup of tea or coffee, turn off your cellphone and immerse yourself in Helen Oyeyemi’s powerful words.  I highly recommend it.


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